E3 Roundtable: Twists in the Production Pipeline

As transitions to next-gen consoles sweep the industry, management in the production pipeline is changing, and representatives from 1st Playable, Activision, Vicious Cycle, Monolith, Foundation 9 and Red Storm discussed it in this E3 session.
As transitions to next-gen consoles sweep the industry, management in the production pipeline is changing. On the first day of E3, industry professionals from 1st Playable Productions, Activision, Inc., Vicious Cycle Software, Monolith Productions, Foundation 9 Entertainment, and Red Storm Entertainment met for the workshop: “Inside the production pipeline: Managing costs, expectations, and competition”, tackling details vital to today's game professional. Moderator Tobi Saulnier, Chief Executive Officer and Founder of 1st Playable Productions, started off the discussion by asking how each panelist handles transitions for next-gen consoles. For Laird Malamed, Vice President of N.A. and European Studios at Activision, Inc., transitions are a matter of immediate changes and decisions. Malamed commented, “We’ve really started to stress knowing what we want from the beginning. We’re better at keeping track of and sticking to a budget by starting with a small team and really establishing what we want to accomplish.” Not all transitions relate to next-gen shifts. Instead, Vicious Cycle Software is dealing primarily with other issues. “Our transition about a year ago was more about heading toward the new handhelds,” said Eric Peterson, President of Vicious Cycle Software. When working on a current-gen product, Vicious Cycle works on quicker deadlines within a certain budget, most often to conserve money. The way to manage short timelines and tight budgets, according to Peterson, is to make sure correct documentation is in place in order to outsource to competent developers. Monolith Productions takes a different approach. Samantha Ryan, Chief Executive Officer in Monolith Productions elaborated on their method. Since they currently do not outsource work, they emphasize efficiency and direction from the very beginning of a product. Within the first month of a game, it undergoes play testing. By having plans aided by a full time Director of Research, they avoid the pitfalls of teams that flop back and forth on ideas. Andrew Ayre, Founding Partner and Co-President of Foundation 9 Entertainment, faced a trickier transition. “Next-gen projects require expectations. Early on, we had to set expectations with publishers to make sure they were onboard,” Ayre reinforced. Foundation 9 Entertainment had to restructure their management, as they created different teams out of individual studios. They remain solid by using shared technology. From their point of view, Red Storm Entertainment has made use of its access to large teams. Steve Reid, Vice President Product Development in Red Storm Entertainment, stated, “We’ve taken opportunities with man power to achieve goals. We’d prefer to do business with a smaller team structure, but sometimes you have a timing and opportunity you want to take advantage of.” He admitted that, at times, they bank more on the brand than the individual product at hand. They have to get their games out, to then follow up with additions such as Mission Packs. Saulnier inquired about the process of managing outsourcing. “Hypercommunicate,” Malamed replied. In the case of Activision, teams hold regularly scheduled telecommunication meetings to keep everyone involved and in the habit of sharing updates with one another. But what happens when companies have to change specification in the midst of development? Monolith Productions keeps track of work from the beginning. For Ryan, the whole point of having testing of a playable prototype (not a demo) early on is to get feedback immediately during the cone of uncertainty. In this way, she avoids wasting resources. Malamed recommends both play testing and generating consumer research based off of the design. Others have argued that play testing for genres such as the FPS is easier, because people come in with a higher understanding of play mechanics. He feels this is not applicable to the play testing of Activision, since they slice game play and test very small individual pieces, most of which, Malamed asserts, do not fit the FPS game mechanics. When play testing, it is essential to know what questions to ask and how to interpret them, as well as be in a position of development where there can be a response or the data could be useless. “Focus on the product before you even have the technology in place,” advised Peterson. Even if drawn to polished graphics on the technology end, it is more important to address the overall product vision to avoid confusion during transitions. New roles and approaches to project planning are forming. Reid identified a “need for a different management structure,” especially when handling cross-studio collaboration. He referenced roles such as coordinating Producers and Senior Producers. Externally managed groups must pick up additional training. “You’re better off looking for preferred partners,” Reid said. He also recommended setting up formal training relationships with education institutes, so that graduates straight out of the program are already prepared to work with the technology and processes of the game industry. Peterson mentioned extended positions. Vicious Cycle Software has just added another Art Director. The two Art Directors will split tasks; one will deal with creative and internal quality of visuals, while the other will manage the production side in internal and external work. With proper documentation, production can be smooth. Peterson also hired a documentation tech writer for the tools and technology. The documents explain how engine works, among other tools, not only for selling the technology as products, but also for outsource work. He insists that all companies need style guides and technical requirements. Creating new positions as needed, developing outsourcing strategies, and most of all clear plans from the beginning and documentation will keep the production pipeline clear of kinks. With next-gen console games production costs often exceeding $10 million, there is little room to misstep and waste resources, this excellent panel concluded.

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